Saturday, March 8, 2008

The River's Side

When I was in Java a few years ago staying with friends, we'd often go for a walk around dusk. The locals would ask what we were doing and where we were going. 'We're going for a walk,' we'd say. 'Where to?', they'd ask and they'd look quizzically when we replied, 'Well, no where in particular, just going for a walk.'

In Britain walking is the most popular and pleasurable activity according to a study by the Department of Transport (cited in Edensor, 2000). Fourteen percent of people who go for walks said they take them for no particular reason, while one third of those surveyed go to the countryside specifically to go walking.

In contrast, city living, overshadowed by cars, noise and de-greened spaces, does not encourage walking or other physical activity. But this changes where there are parks in a local area. One US study on women and exercise found that urban parks, especially those with natural and aesthetic amenity, are beneficial to both physical and mental health (Krenchyn, 2006).

Parks having a range of attractive scenic elements such as hills, woodlands, wide views, open spaces and water were related to the frequency of exercise. The women interviewed by researcher Kira Krenchyn spoke about the beauty of the park and its peacefulness. They noticed the changing seasons, the feel of the wind, and the aroma of grass and flowers. It reminded them of the countryside, or of their favourite places while growing up. Specifically it offered an opportunity to escape 'the chaos' of the city, to reduce stress and to be in nature.

Visiting the park was a vital part of the women's day. Significant benefits included the sense of 'freedom', the chance to meditate, to 'clear out the cobwebs', and to reflect on things going on in their lives. 'You can get away from's rewarding.'

An Australian study by Ball et al (2001) reported similar findings. Both men and women were less likely to go walking for exercise or recreation in a 'less aesthetically pleasing or less convenient environment'. Women particularly said that without company or a pet to walk with, they were less inclined to do any exercise. Further research by MacDougall et al (1997) affirmed that attractiveness is an important correlate in encouraging locals to undertake physical activity (See also Booth et al, 2000; Pretty et al, 2005).

Walking the river is more than an aesthetic experience. It is a beautiful place, it offers an opportunity for relaxation, enhanced physical and mental health and spiritual reflection. As well as the sensory and emotional benefits noted by Krenchyn, and the desire for environmental aesthetics and convenience from Ball et al, the river offers something more. This is the sense of reciprocity, of mindfulness, bound up in an ethic of care or moral duty to act on behalf of the river. To speak for the river. To act for the river. To be on the river's side.

Ball K, A Bauman, E Leslie and N Owen, 2001, Perceived Environmental Aesthetics and Convenience and Company Are Associated with Walking for Exercise among Australian Adults, Preventive Medicine, 33, 5, 434-444.
Booth ML, N Owen, A Bauman, O Clavisi and E Leslie, 2000, Social-Cognitive and Perceived Environment Influences Associated wsith Physical Activity in Older Australians, Preventative Medicine, 31, 15-22.
Edensor T, 2000, Walking in the British Countryside: reflexivity, Embodied Practices and Ways to Escape, Body and Society, 6, 3-4, 81-106.
Krenchyn K, 2006, 'The only place to go and be in the city': Women talk about exercise, being outdoors, and the meanings of a large urban park, Health and Place, 12, 4, 631-643.
MacDougall C, R Cooke, N. Owen, K. Wilson, A Bauman, 1997, Relating Physical Activity to Health Status, Social Connections and Community Facilities, Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 21, 6, 631-637.
Pretty J, J Peacock, M Sellens and M Griffin, 2005, The Mental and Physical Outcomes of Green Exercise, International Journal of Environmental Health, 15, 5, 319-317.